Volunteers essential to fire department
Tonganoxie When talking with potential recruits, Tonganoxie Fire Chief Dave Bennett doesn’t soft-pedal the commitment required to be a volunteer/part-time firefighter.
“We’re not discouraging anybody, but we want people to have a very good understanding about how much time and sacrifice it does take,” he said. “We want people to understand what a commitment it is. It is like having a second full-time job.”
If they have no previous experience, those wanting to join the department’s volunteer/part-time firefighter corps that augments its four full-time firefighters will be required to undergo 160 hours of training before they will be assigned paid shifts, Bennett said.
That commitment underscores their importance to the department, which couldn’t operate without the part-timers and volunteers.
“We’re still 95 percent a part-time/volunteer organization,” the chief said. “Our total manpower is about 30. Fifteen to 20 work part-time shifts.”
Ideally, the department has full-time firefighters on duty at the station working shifts throughout the day, Bennett said. It is also a goal to have a part-timer on duty, especially at night.
“We can’t afford to staff it (with two firefighters) 24 hours a day, all the time,” Bennett said. “Ninety percent of time, there’s two people down there.”
Although part-time firefighters do get paid — the Tonganoxie City Council voted earlier this year to increase their pay from $13.50 to $14 an hour — they still contribute many volunteer hours as they work shifts the department’s budget can't afford to compensate, attend required meetings, get training or help with station maintenance and preparations, Bennett said.
The required training regimen includes two firefighting courses and a semester-long emergency medical training course. All three courses require the passing of written tests administrated by Kansas University before the volunteer earns certification.
The Firefighting I course familiarizes beginners with equipment and firefighting techniques and provides time in the KU burn trailer and some instruction in building construction. Firefighting II expands on those elements while adding training on hazardous materials response.
Training does not end with the three required courses, though. Bennett said he was constantly encouraging firefighters to take additional courses to supplement the in-house training.
“They get sick of me wanting them to go to school and learn more,” Bennett said. “There’s training going on throughout the year. All that training goes on before we make one call.”
Fortunately for Tonganoxie, many young firefighters are willing to make the commitment as the first step to finding full-time firefighting positions. Tonganoxie further benefits from attracting those from the Kansas City area looking for entry-level opportunities that don’t exist on metropolitan departments manned by full-time firefighters, Bennett said.